The Listener: Recreation of Times Past ; What Are the Pitfalls for the Writer of a Historical Novel? Should You Sacrifice Imaginative Freedom for Historical Accuracy? and How Do You Avoid Anachronisms without Getting Carried Away by Research? in This Selection from the Best of BBC Radio, Ronan Bennett, Who Is Working on a Novel Set in the 17th Century, Discusses the Art of Looking Back

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Ronan Bennett was brought up in Belfast and lives in London. He has written three novels; his third, 'The Catastrophist', was shortlisted for the 1998 Whitbread prize. He is in the process of writing a fourth novel, 'Havoc, In Its Third Year', which he has set in Halifax in the 1640s. The novel is scheduled for publication next year.

I FIRST HAD the idea for this book at the beginning of 1997, when I read an interview with Tony Blair in, I think, the Big Issue, in which Blair was complaining about the aggressive behaviour and the unsightliness of homeless people. It was all of a piece with the New Labour rhetoric of more emphasis on traditional values.

It reminded me of the rhetoric of 17th-century England - which was a period I had an interest in because some years ago I did a PhD in crime and law enforcement in 17th-century England. The rhetoric was familiar in that it was about servants and apprentices not being deferential enough and not working hard enough. It was the usual stuff about women bringing up illegitimate children on the parish, about the lack of respect shown to authority and to religion, about the world as we know it coming to an end.

So I started to think that I could say something about modern Britain by setting the story in the context of the past, by looking at these concerns that the "respectable" classes perennially have about the poorer classes.

In the 17th century, religion was central in a way that I think even the most religious person of today would find it hard to understand - it wasn't a private matter, it was everything. It was politics, your relationship with your wife, your children, your neighbours.

I was brought up a Catholic but now I would probably describe myself as an atheist. Religious feeling to me is quite alien. One thing that I had to do was to re-learn and understand this contract of religion in people's lives. The first step was to read the King James Bible - that wasn't a struggle, it's just such a beautiful piece of writing - and then look at some devotional text. You have to understand that this was a period not only of deep religiosity but of Puritanism. This was the high point of English Puritanism, in which Puritan diviners were arguing that people were losing sight of the covenant with God.

That brought a change in attitudes towards relief of the poor. There was a Puritan argument that poor-relief confirmed the idle ways of the poor. Then there was an older, more Catholic approach, which was: give, give, don't ask what use it will be put to, don't try to make demands, just give, because it is your duty as a Christian to give.

So in the 17th century you can see people dividing along those lines. There is a big psychological aspect to the first attitude - there was this Puritan idea that the receiver had to prove that they would put alms to good use. I think there's something quite calculating, pinched, unattractive about that. The second attitude, which is one of greater largesse, has a touch of recklessness about it. It takes a broader view of human weakness, and it perhaps contains the idea of "There but for the grace of God go I." So between those two conflicting views, there is plenty of room for your characters to take on attitudes which contradict each other's, and for the characters' world view.

The main character for the novel is a man called John Brigg. He's a real historical character, a coroner active in Yorkshire in the 1640s to the 1660s. He came to my attention simply because he left behind so many records: I got to recognise the hand, which is very distinctive. It's either his own or his clerk's. He was a very active coroner, covering everything from a death caused by a man being gored by a bull, to an infanticide, to homicide, and so on. And I started to imagine what he might have been like.

One of the difficulties with writing history is that everything has to be footnoted and sourced. …